Military Affairs Breaking the Taboo

For more than four decades, Israel has been trying to enjoy the benefits of nuclear deterrence without the costs of being a non-proliferation pariah. But time may be running out.

Bruce Riedel
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Bruce Riedel

The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb, by Avner Cohen Columbia University Press, 416 pages, $35

Avner Cohen.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya

"The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb" is a brave, provocative and very important book. Avner Cohen has done prodigious research into the development of one of the most important strategic issues in the Middle East: Israel's nuclear weapons policy. While this policy has cast a tremendous shadow across the region for a half-century, both the Israeli and American governments have regarded it as a taboo subject since 1969. Israeli leaders have in fact never acknowledged whether they have the bomb; rather, they have wrapped the issue in layers of ambiguity and opacity, termed amimut in Hebrew, to keep the reality off-limits to discussion. In this way, Israel has tried to enjoy the benefits of nuclear deterrence without the costs of being a pariah vis-a-vis the global non-proliferation system.

Initially, the United States tried to persuade Israel not to develop nuclear capability. Cohen's earlier book, "Israel and the Bomb" (1999 ), chronicled Israel's decision to get the bomb and President John F. Kennedy's attempt to dissuade it from crossing the nuclear threshold. The new book picks up where the earlier one left off: with the September 1969 meeting in which Golda Meir and Richard Nixon, with no aides present, agreed that Israel

would have the bomb but not acknowledge it, and America would go along with the charade. Since that date, Cohen writes, Israel and the United States have had a bilateral commitment to keep Israel's nuclear arsenal beyond the purview of international scrutiny, while America maintains Israel's conventional and nuclear qualitative superiority over any possible enemy.

This policy has worked well for both countries for 40 years, but Cohen argues that the cost to Israeli democracy has been considerable and that its time is running out, if only because of the challenge Iran's nascent nuclear program presents to Israel. Both are provocative and important arguments; the bulk of the book is devoted to the first issue.

Amimut required the creation of secret infrastructures - to build the bomb, preserve its secrecy and keep the media, or anyone else, from unveiling it. "Worst-Kept Secret" examines all three aspects. The Israel Atomic Energy Commission, which runs the weapons program, reports directly to the prime minister; the Director of Security of the Defense Establishment is a top-secret intelligence and counterintelligence agency that protects the secret; and the office of the censor ensures that Israeli media respect the taboo. Cohen reveals how these institutions grew with little or no oversight from the Knesset or the judiciary, and became accepted in Israel as essential to the survival of the state.

As a consequence, he argues, Israeli democracy has never had an open and coherent discussion about the ultimate weapon. No other country has had such an exceptional approach to its own nuclear deterrent. Israel, moreover, has acted to prevent other states in the region from getting the bomb, employing force, diplomacy and sabotage for the purpose. As recently as Operation Orchard, the September 6, 2007 strike on Syria, Israel has demonstrated its determination to be the only nuclear weapons state in the region. Only one Islamic state, Pakistan, has escaped Israel's reach.

Critical issues of command and control, accountability and the rule of law - as they relate to nuclear matters - have never been openly debated in Israel's otherwise vibrant democracy, nor has the impact of the bomb on regional stability. What is the command and control structure for Israel's arsenal, and who decides about its use? What are the authorities and powers of the defense establishment's director of security and where do they come from? What impact has the bomb had on Arab thinking about Israel? What strategic impact has amimut had on the last 50 years of Middle East history? These and many other important questions are black boxes, due to the taboo.

The Indian model

Cohen convincingly argues that the Israeli public has been an enthusiastic participant in maintaining the taboo. For understandable reasons, having to do with the Holocaust and Israel's long struggle for survival, Israelis seem comfortable maintaining a level of silence on these issues that would be unthinkable in any other democracy today. In a very real sense, Israelis are complicit in the national refusal to acknowledge and discuss their arsenal.

Cohen argues that it is time for Israel to come out of the closet. Israeli democracy, he says, needs nuclear ambiguity to end and the rising Iranian challenge makes it all the more urgent before a mad scramble for nuclear weapons engulfs the Middle East. A model for how to do so may lie in the U.S. agreement with India that George W. Bush pushed through the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group and a skeptical U.S. Congress in 2008. India became a de facto member of the nuclear weapons club as a result, opening some of its reactors to international inspection while keeping others for military purposes, and in turn gaining access to advanced technology. Can something similar but not identical be created for Israel that would allow it to become a recognized weapons state inside the global proliferation regime, in effect acknowledging what we all know?

The Iranian nuclear question makes this issue all the more timely, and Cohen's arguments all the more urgent. Israel is the state that feels most threatened by Iran's nuclear ambitions, and with good reason. The Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, was the first to call for Israel to be eliminated from the Middle East, and it was he who sent the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon in 1982 to establish Hezbollah. Iran's current president has called for Israel's destruction often, most alarmingly last month when he toured Lebanon. Today Israel is believed to be considering the wisdom of a strike against Iran.

But if it doesn't attack Iran, Israel will still maintain military superiority over the Islamic Republic for the foreseeable future. Amimut tends to hide this fact. Cohen notes that even among officers in the Israel Defense Forces, few have access to information about Israel's bombs and their delivery systems. Estimates by international think tanks of the arsenal's size generally concur that Israel has about 100 nuclear weapons, maybe even twice that number. Even under a crash program, Iran won't be able to build that many nuclear weapons for many years, perhaps decades.

Israel also has multiple delivery systems. It has intermediate-range ballistic missiles, like the Jericho, capable of reaching any target in Iran. Its fleet of F-15 long-range strike aircraft can also deliver nuclear payloads. Some analysts have suggested that it can also deliver nuclear weapons via cruise missiles launched from its Dolphin submarines. In sum, Israel will be able to maintain a sizable superiority over Iran for the foreseeable future. This is the reality of the regional balance of power, though it is rarely said in public.

Israel will also continue to have conventional military superiority over Iran and the rest of the region. Its air force is capable of penetrating air defense systems with virtual impunity, as it demonstrated in 2007 when it destroyed Syria's nascent nuclear capability. The IDF's intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities are vastly superior to its potential rivals'. Israeli satellites provide it with coverage of Iranian facilities and capabilities every day, which according to several American think tanks is a major advantage in modern warfare.

The 2006 Lebanon war and the 2009 Gaza war demonstrated that there are limits to Israel's conventional capabilities - some, like those regarding ground operations to reoccupy territories that Israel does not want to try to govern again, are self-imposed - but those limits should not obscure the underlying reality of its conventional military superiority over its enemies.

Iran, on the other hand, has never fully rebuilt its conventional military from the damage suffered in the Iran-Iraq war. It still relies heavily for air power on equipment purchased by the Shah. Moreover, the most recent United Nations sanctions mean that virtually all significant weapons systems - including tanks, aircraft, naval vessels and missiles - are banned from sale or transfer to Iran, as are training and technical assistance for such systems. In other words, even if Iran wants to improve its conventional military capability in the next few years, with the help of foreign suppliers, and has the money to do so, the UN arms ban will make that near impossible. Nor does it have the capability to produce state-of-the-art weapons on its own, despite its occasional claims to self-sufficiency. It certainly cannot build a modern air force that would compete with the IAF. Finally, Israel will continue to enjoy the support of the world's only superpower for the foreseeable future. U.S. assistance includes roughly $3 billion in aid every year. Dating back to 1973, it is the longest-running financial assistance program in American history. It has never been challenged or cut by Congress, and permits Israeli planners to do multi-year planning for defense acquisitions with great certitude about what they can afford to acquire.

U.S. assistance also goes far beyond mere financial aid. The Pentagon and the IDF constantly exchange technical expertise on virtually all elements of the modern battlefield. Missile defense has been at the center of this exchange for over 20 years now. Officials in Washington and Tel Aviv say the Obama administration has strengthened and expanded the relationship. The two countries also have a robust and dynamic intelligence relationship that helps ensure Israel's qualitative edge.

American support for Israel comes despite Israel's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Since 1969, the U.S. has implicitly supported Israel's nuclear deterrent by providing it with high-performance aircraft and not pressing for NPT signature. Every president since Nixon has supported maintaining Israel's qualitative edge over its potential foes, including U.S. allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Cohen notes that President Barack Obama reaffirmed these commitments to Israel early in his term, even as he has pushed for a world without nuclear weapons. Iran, in contrast, has no major power providing it with financial help. Its arms relationships with Russia and China have been severed by UN Resolution 1929. Its only military ally is Syria, not exactly a powerhouse. Cohen concludes that the amimut issue needs to be put on the table both in Israel and the U.S. The Iranian challenge is a serious danger to regional, and even global, stability, which should be addressed in the full context of the real balance of power in the area. Those engaged in such a discussion cannot pretend Israel is a weak and helpless state. But they must also address Israel's legitimate concerns about Iranian recklessness.

In the 2008 presidential primaries, then-senator Hillary Clinton suggested extending a nuclear umbrella over Israel to deter Iran. Does that make sense if Israel already has its own strategic deterrent? How can we realistically debate these issues if we don't acknowledge reality? Isn't it time to stop pretending that a badly kept secret is still a taboo?

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He served for 30 years in the CIA, negotiated at the Wye River and Camp David summits, and chaired the U.S. president's interagency review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy in 2009.



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